There is only one way a movie about a man who turns another man into a walrus (against his will) can go wrong, and that's by being boring. As such, Kevin Smith's new movie Tusk, is a success. But even more, this is an entertaining flick that straddles the line between horror and comedy in a way few movies do successfully.
The story concerns Wallace (oh, yeah, Wal-Lace), a podcaster whose gimmick is that he travels the continent in search of interesting stories that he describes to his partner Teddy, who is agoraphobic or doesn't like to travel or something. They call their show the Not-See Party. (Smith understands the podcast world pretty well, I'd judge.)
Wallace has journeyed to Canada to interview a handicapped kid he's been making fun of, but when he shows up, the kid has selfishly committed suicide, leaving Wallace without a story. A chance sighting of a flyer leads him to the home of Howard Howe, who may possibly be The Most Interesting Man in the World.
But behind Howe's oddly affable exterior lurks a sinister desire to turn a man into a walrus.
This is not just preposterous, it virtually dares you to take it seriously. And Smith never loses his sense of humor about the proceedings; but he also dares you to not take it seriously. Wallace is a real person—a jerk, to be sure, given to cheating on his girlfriend Ally, but in no way deserving of his fate. Ally and Teddy aren't exactly great, either, but their concern is genuine when they go to look for the missing Wallace, and down to the final scene which is both hilarious and touching.
Dark comedy, obviously. It reminds of many other movies, of course: It could almost stand as a parody of Silence of the Lambs, and it recalls The Human Centipede (without the gratuitous grossness). But the movie it most feels like to me is Motel Hell, which similarly straddles the line between sincere, campy and satirical.
The most instructive comparison is probably between this and Centipede. Both are body-horror type films, and as I've noted with regard to The Human Centipede, it used to be that this sort of mad scientist revolved around said mad scientist never accomplishing the desired goal. That's important because the dread is way more potent than the actualization, which is gross, unpleasant and (in the case of Centipede) frankly goofy.
Smith does an excellent job of creating the dread, as well as a few moments of genuine horror, which is perhaps a bit surprising coming from the guy famous for things like Clerks (although Dogma has its startling moments). There seems to be a consensus (insofar as these things go) that this part of the film is well done.
When confronted with the reality of the, uh, werewalrus, though, about half the audience bails (critics and commoners alike). I kind of think people are taking themselves too seriously, though. "I couldn't possibly enjoy a movie about a man turned into a walrus!"
Again, the only sin is to be boring, which is actually really easy to do: If you disrespect your characters, if you go for too many goofy jokes (rather than just letting the absurdity/horror of the situation speak for itself), if you just go too long—these are the landmines of the, uh, human-walrus hybrid film.
Smith steers through the minefield in his own idiosyncratic way, keeping his movie in the 90-100 minute range, and balancing the absurdity and horror with the human elements.
He does have one weakness: The long monologue (or sometimes dialogue) with a tight shot of the speaker(s), straight on looking at the camera. He does this effectively a couple of times here, and then a couple of other times less so, as with the Quebecois detective Guy Lapointe describing his encounter with Howe, and then again later with a long dialogue between Lapointe and Howe (pretending not to be Howe).
These word-storms actually manage the horror/comedy thing well at first (sort of like Gremlins Phoebe Cates' hilarious/horrifying monologue about why her family doesn't celebrate Christmas), then they go long, then they get absurd again, but then they go too long.
In a movie about a guy turned into a walrus, this is a pretty minor complaint.
Michael Parks ("Twin Peaks", We Are What We Are, Planet Terror/Deathproof) does an excellent job as Howe, as does Justin Long as Wallace. Genesis Rodriguez (Identity Theft, Big Hero 6) and Haley Joel Osmont (really!) play the concerned girlfriend and friend, respectively. Johnny Depp plays the French-Canadian detective (the kids did not recognize him). Smith's daughter Harley Quinn, and Depp's kid Lily-Rose Melody have cute roles as Canadian convenience store clerks. Even Mrs. Smith (Jennifer Schwalbach) has a short role as a waitress.
A lot of Canadian/American humor. We all liked it. Even weeks later we find ourselves chuckling over parts of it. There are a couple of really nice shots in here, too, which is always nice to see from the guy who revived "set the camera down and talk" as an art form.
This film does demand that you suspend your belief, of course, and you probably know if you're up for that. Weeks later, we still find ourselves chuckling over it, and The Flower has taken to using it as a new barometer. ("Gone Girl was pretty good, but you know what would've made it better? A walrus.")
EXTENDED SPECIAL BLOGGER'S CUT MATERIAL:
I'm going to add some insider stuff and some personal stuff, so if you want to geek out a bit with me here, read on.
You know, I always like Kevin Smith movies, even as I disagree (often vehemently) with whatever the underlying message is. Like, is a guy really supposed to roll with it when he finds out his girl has lied about her (as it turns out) extensive sex life (Clerks, Chasing Amy)? Is God's main message to Man really just not to believe very much in anything (Dogma)?
I can forgive Jersey Girl's "Make this one big gesture to prove you love me or all is lost" thing because that's a standard Hollywood trope.
But they're fun, funny, and distinctive (an important thing). They're also short and not boring. I feel like I could comfortably say, "Well, they're entertaining, but not masterpieces" but then I think back to all the movies in that category from the '90s that get watched and re-watched and emerge as new classics.
The Big Lebowski, for example, had a meager $17M box office when it was released. And Groundhog Day, now a beloved classic, was received with the critical warmth of a golf clap, and finished somewhere between Free Willy and Demolition Man at the box office.
Re-watchability is a big deal.
Anyway, Tusk came about as a result of a podcast where Smith and hetero-life-partner Scott Mosier, wherein they came across an actual ad by a man who wanted to exchange rent in his house for someone willing to dress up as a walrus for about 2 hours a day. You can hear them actually map out the plot, almost as filmed, here. And here them talk about the box office failure here.
Though, as noted on the second podcast, with a $3M budget, there was no chance of losing money. Smith's attitude is instructive; he wishes it did better, but he has a laundry list of how it was great for him.
It will still make a lot more at the box office than Life of Crime, unless that gets a much bigger release somehow, but it won't make as much as Motel Hell, even without adjusting for inflation.
But I can't see how this doesn't get a place in the cult horror pantheon next to that film.